Sensitivity and the sword

‘And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept’ (Vayishlah; Genesis 33:4)

Two brown small birds food 521 (photo credit: ISRAEL WEISS)
Two brown small birds food 521
(photo credit: ISRAEL WEISS)
I am writing these lines on the seventh day of Operation Pillar of Defense, as the cabinet is deciding whether to begin a ground offensive in Gaza. There are two sides to the issue: On the one hand, we began this military operation to gain some respite for normal living for our residents in the South. For years they have been suffering from the constant threat of rocket fire from Hamas, which interrupted any normal semblance of life. No sovereign state could legitimately accept a cease-fire that would not at least bring a reasonable period of peace to its cities.
On the other hand, we have thus far gained a great deal of moral support from the neutral bloc of nations because we have engaged exclusively in aerial strikes directed with pincer-like precision against specific terrorist leaders as well as the major Hamas buildings of operation, media and banking. A ground invasion would inevitably bring in its wake our own Israeli losses as well as a much greater proportion of Palestinian civilian casualties.
This would remove Israel from the moral high ground, and might very well cause us to lose the support we now enjoy from our “friends.”
This week’s portion of Vayishlah contains a fascinating precedent in the form of the military operation by Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, against the civilian population of Shechem. A debate in legal theory between Maimonides and Nahmanides about the legitimacy of their action will certainly provide much fuel for our discussion.
First, let us review the facts. Jacob has left the land of Laban, his father-in-law, and returns, together with his “tribe,” to his ancestral homeland, Canaan. He purchases a piece of land in the city of Shechem from Hamor, the prince of the city, and erects an altar to God. Shechem, the son of Hamor, rapes Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, leaving Jacob and his sons outraged.
Shechem and his father come to meet the Hebrew clan; Prince Hamor announces that his son desperately wishes to marry Dinah and that they are willing to offer an exorbitant dowry. Jacob’s sons answer “with subterfuge” that only if every male resident will circumcise himself can Shechem marry Dinah and the two large clans to join together; “But if you will not listen to us and become circumcised, we will take our daughter and leave.”
From this last phrase, it is clear that the meeting of the potential in-laws took place under the cloud of Dinah’s captivity; the sweet-talking Hamor was holding Dinah hostage. To the surprise of the Jacobides, Hamor accepted the condition of circumcision. Simeon and Levi took their swords on the third day after the mass circumcision and slew every male in the city, including Shechem and Hamor. Then they rescued Dinah.
Father Jacob chides Simeon and Levi: “You have sullied me, causing me to stink among the inhabitants of the land… I am few in number, and should they band together and attack me, I will be annihilated – I am my household” (Gen. 34:30). But the last word of the chapter – and what gives final closure to the incident – is the statement of Simeon and Levi: “Should they be allowed to make our sister into a harlot?” (Gen. 34:31).
It is especially important to note that Jacob does not charge his two sons with moral opprobrium; his condemnation is on political rather than ethical grounds.
The Bible itself informs us that Jacob’s fears had no real basis. Much the opposite: “[The Jacobide clan] traveled on, and there descended the fear of God upon all the cities roundabout, and no one dared to pursue the sons of Jacob.”
Maimonides, the great Jewish legalist-philosopher, makes a startling postscript to this incident. He rules that (Laws of Kings 9:14), “The gentiles are commanded to keep the Seven Noahide Laws, the seventh being the establishment of law courts and judges to rule on and enforce the compliance with the first six. Any Noahide who transgresses any one of these seen is to be killed by the sword. And it is for this reason that all the householders of Shechem were guilty of death. Shechem stole [and raped Dinah]; the Shechemites saw and they knew and… they did not bring them to justice.”
Nahmanides disagrees, interpreting the Noahide law to establish law courts and judges to mean the legislation of the details of a civil legal system; he does not hold every gentile responsible for the proper execution of each criminal (Nahmanides, Genesis 34:13).
But Maimonides has a most compelling argument – especially in light of recent history. Shechem would never have permitted himself to rape Dinah had she not been a Hebrew maiden – a stranger who was isolated from the rest of the city.
Once you are dealing with people who believe that it is power that gives the right to dominance, then you must use even more power if you hope to survive. Germany and Japan became very different nation-states after the World War II, but only after they were convinced that they could not beat the allies militarily. And remember, it was the residents of Gaza who brought Hamas into power! Allow my position to be made very clear. I am proud of Israel for doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties, often even at the risk to the lives of our own soldiers.
This is what makes us so different from our enemies.
But we cannot allow this sensitivity to be the means by which we hand victory to our enemies. As long as the enemy is a jihadist, that would be the ultimate immorality.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of Efrat.